Juneteenth Recipe Suggestion: Dover Cake from Mrs. Malinda Russell’s 1866 cookbook

Dover Cake, page 7 in A Domestic Cook Book
Adapted by Kimberly Palmer Wright

Dover Cake, tested and photo by Deanna Berkemeier

This is a lovely, moist cake, and keeps well.

Dover Cake was a popular ‘fancy cake’ in the early 19th century. It is still baked today, usually flavored with vanilla, which Mrs. Russell only rarely called for. Flavorings she seems to have favored include rosewater, nutmeg, and other spices. In selecting “flavor to taste” I have followed the suggestions of her contemporaries for Dover Cake, and used rosewater, nutmeg, and cinnamon. The combination of rosewater and nutmeg was popular in the 18th century and continued to be enjoyed well into the 19th century. Mrs. Russell may have used a pan with a tube like a Bundt pan, although some writers recommend a sheet cake-type pan and cutting the baked cake into squares.

At the end of the recipe you will find notes on ingredients that may not be familiar to you.

Ingredients

  • Sugar, granulated white, 2 cups / 430 grams
  • Eggs, 4 small to medium or 3 large / 181 grams in the shell
  • Butter, unsalted or lightly salted, 1 cup / 225 grams
  • Soured cream (see note following recipe), 1 cup / 240 grams
  • Flour, unbleached pastry or cake, 3 cups / 330 grams
  • Cream of tartar, 1 teaspoon / 5 ml
  • Baking soda, 1 teaspoon / 5 ml
  • Flavorings to taste, from contemporary recipes
    • Rose water, 1 teaspoon-1 tablespoon / 5 to 15 ml
    • Ground cinnamon, 1 teaspoon / 5 ml
    • Nutmeg, freshly grated, 1, about 2 teaspoons / 10 ml

Method

Have all ingredients at room temperature.

Preheat oven to 350ºF/175C. 

Butter and flour a 10”/25 cm Bundt pan, or a 13” x 9” x 2”/33 x 23 x 5 cm sheet cake pan; you can also make 32 cupcakes.

Sift the flour with the cream of tartar, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg; set aside.

In a large mixing bowl and with an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar until light; then mix in the rosewater, set aside. In another bowl, use the electric mixer (if you have a whisk attachment, use it) to whip the eggs until light, fluffy, and increased in volume; ideally, the eggs should thicken. The air in the eggs will help to leaven the cake. Add the eggs to the reserved butter and sugar, mixing by hand, or at low speed with the mixer, until well blended. Add the flour mixture alternating with the sour cream, and fold in gently until just incorporated.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan; the pan should be no more than 2/3 full. If the batter doesn’t fit into your pan, bake the remainder as cupcakes. Smooth the top, and gently tap the pan on the countertop a couple of times to eliminate large air bubbles.

Bake in the pre-heated oven until the cake just pulls away from the sides of the pan, a toothpick comes out clean, and the cake springs back when touched lightly in the center. The time required will depend on the choice of pan; in a Bundt pan this will take 60-65 minutes, less in a rectangular pan, and about 20 minutes for cupcakes.

Cool cake in the pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes before turning out. 

Notes on ingredients:

Modern sour cream is thicker than what would have been available to Mrs. Russell. The simplest modern substitute is one cup of heavy cream soured with a tablespoon of lemon juice. The sour cream contributes moisture to the cake, as well as contributing acid for leavening.

Pastry or cake flour makes a more delicate cake with a finer crumb than unbleached all purpose flour. Mrs. Russell lived in the South. Her flour might have been similar to the Southern brand, White Lily. If you can’t find it, use all-purpose flour.

Cream of tartar and baking soda are components of baking powder. A little kitchen chemistry: soda is alkaline, cream of tartar acidic. When combined, they release carbon dioxide, which as tiny air bubbles makes the cake light. The acidity of the sour cream also contributes to leavening the cake, as do the eggs.

As rosewaters vary in strength from brand to brand, use the smaller amount if you are unfamiliar with the ingredient. If your local market doesn’t carry rosewater it can be found online, and from markets catering to Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines.

If you can find it, use Ceylon cinnamon, which is the type that was grown in the West Indies in the 19th century. It has a more delicate flavor than the more common supermarket cinnamon, and is what would have been used by Mrs. Russell.

Fresh nutmeg is a large dense seed. Mrs. Russell will have used freshly grated nutmeg. Pre-packaged, pre-ground nutmeg has lost much of the aroma of the spice. If you can’t acquire whole nutmegs to grate, then we recommend you drop the nutmeg. The cinnamon and rosewater will be enough flavoring.

Serving suggestions:

Mrs. Russell would most likely have iced this cake. The icing recipes in her book are made with sugar and egg whites, often lightly flavored with lemon. For a simple modern touch, dust the top of the cake with confectioners’ sugar and serve with fresh strawberries or peaches, and a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream, perhaps flavored with a little grated lemon zest.

References:

Leslie, Eliza. Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes & Sweetmeats. (1828)
Lea, Elizabeth Ellicott. Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers. (1859)
Harland, Marion. Common Sense in the Household: A Manual of Practical Housewifery (1871)

A mini Dover Cake for a small household, using quarter quantities of ingredients. —Photo by K.W.